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Wordless Wednesday: Medieval Horse Armour, Royal Armouries, Leeds

Horse HelmHorse Helm Explanation

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Review: The Stolen Crown, Susan Higginbotham

stolencrownWhen her sister Elizabeth Woodville secretly marries the King of England, Katherine Woodville’s future changes irrevocably.  In the rush to marry off the many Woodville siblings, Kate becomes a duchess when Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham, is chosen for her.  Kate and Harry are children when they marry, but as they grow together they fall in love easily.  But always in the way is Richard, duke of Gloucester, Harry’s idol from childhood.  When Richard’s ambition leads him to sanction unspeakable deeds, Harry must choose whether to maintain his blind loyalty or strike out against his closest friend.

I’ve enjoyed both of Susan Higginbotham’s previous works and I’m happy to say that I enjoyed this one, too.  I will admit that I found the beginning slightly tedious; a lot of it is recounting of history I already knew, so it might be perfectly fine for a reader who isn’t quite so familiar with late fifteenth century England.  Once Kate and Henry start to grow, however, the book becomes really enjoyable.  Their love story and affection for one another are often sweet and I liked watching them grow up together and move into maturity.

I also liked that Higginbotham actually made me like the duke of Buckingham.  I might have thought that impossible, but she does it successfully.  I even liked her version of Richard III here; he does horrendous things, but he never seems like an evil villain.  Just an ambitious, somewhat foolish, man, happy to bend the course of history in his direction when he can.  The author also blends facts in liberally.  I recognized so much from my own research and I have to admit that I smiled whenever I found a particular tidbit that only someone who had done some digging would know.  I read her blog, so I also know that she seeks out original sources whenever possible, which I always appreciate.  She includes a bibliography in the back for anyone who has a desire to read yet more about the Wars of the Roses, as well as a detailed author’s note for those who want to know what is fact and what is fiction.  If you like historical accuracy in with your fiction, look no further than Ms. Higginbotham.

The Stolen Crown is a great addition to the many works of fiction about the Wars of the Roses in England.  It’s refreshing to read about characters who tread the middle ground – there are no villains or saints here, just people.  I really liked it.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.

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Review & Giveaway: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

What would happen if we twenty-first century people took a trip back in time to the fourteenth century? It would be very like visiting another country. Even our landscape would be greatly changed. Ian Mortimer takes this approach and, applying his theory of living history, treats his readers to an objective and entertaining view of one of the most stereotypical centuries in medieval history. The fourteenth century has not only castles, knights, tournaments, and wars, but also gave birth to many of the creative minds associated with medieval England like Chaucer and the Gawain-poet.

Living history is a fascinating idea. Instead of applying modern stereotypes to medieval practices, Mortimer attempts instead to understand them on their own terms. For example, a popular perception is that medieval people were dirty. In comparison to us, they were; most people did not bathe on a daily basis, nor did they have detergents and disinfectants to clean their houses or clothes with. From a medieval perspective, however, women spent hours working to clean their homes, clearing rushes from the floor, scouring pots and pans, and laundering clothes with a variety of harsh soaps. Men and women washed their hands and faces daily and even started to use perfumes. They ate politely, especially in the presence of their social betters. To them, that was cleanliness. There were, of course, smelly or messy people, but there are smelly and messy people now too.

Mortimer’s book is divided into eleven chapters, covering such topics as the landscape, the medieval character, health and hygiene, and the law. He uses examples to illustrate his points, such as a genuine medieval gang that evaded the law or examples of a few women who broke out of the status quo and became unusually wealthy and powerful. Queen Isabella is the second richest person in the century; quite remarkable when women were regarded as property of their husbands and fathers. He also attempts to convey the tragedy of the plague; while other historians may evaluate it for its effect on history, which was largely beneficial, Mortimer shows us how it was anything but that to the third to half of the population that died from it and their relatives, who watched them die and mourned for them. Mortimer even imagines a few conversations that travellers might have, for example, when bartering for food.

My favorite section, however, was the chapter on clothing. Using illuminated manuscripts and tapestries, Mortimer shows how the style of dress changed drastically from the beginning of the century to the end. Clothing more than anything enables me to visualize the people described in the book and, in my experience, is rarely mentioned in detail in schools or museums as few examples survive. I loved learning how the invention of the button changed clothing styles and how people moved gradually towards more provocative styles, which were of course disapproved of by clergy and the elderly.

This is certainly history worth reading. It’s not heavy at all and is a perfect read for the non-academic who wishes to learn a lot more about the Middle Ages but doesn’t have the patience for a more serious, longer study.

I loved this book so much that I’m going to be discussing it on That’s How I Blog with the wonderful Nicole on June 8th at 4 pm EST.  Do you want a copy of your own to discuss with me?  Thanks to Simon & Schuster, I have 3 copies to give away to anyone with a valid US mailing address.  To enter, just leave a comment on this review.  This contest will be open until February 8th.  The winners are commenters 3, 6, and 32 thanks to random.org.  Congratulations to Lindymc, The Kool-Aid Mom, and Alyce!

This review was originally posted at The Book Bag and I’d like to thank them for my review copy.

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Review: Blood and Roses, Helen Castor

This work of history takes a look at the multi-generational Paston family throughout the years immediately after the Black Death and through the Wars of the Roses.  The Pastons left behind an immense number of letters which have been miraculously preserved for six hundred years and as such are a historical treasure trove for those of us who wonder how gentlemen lived in the fifteenth century.  Helen Castor recounts the rise and fall of their fortunes here, illuminating their individual personalities; the tenacious women, especially Agnes and Margaret, the hard-working William and John and the at times disappointing John II.  Using the Pastons as a lens, Castor picks up larger issues at work in fifteenth century England and provides a fascinating biography about a surprisingly ordinary family.

I read this one for my dissertation, so I paid much closer attention to it than I would have otherwise.  To my surprise, I still really enjoyed it.  Helen Castor writes clearly and succinctly, so that while we’re learning facts, we don’t feel bogged down by too much academic language.  She also summarizes quite a bit of information about the period, so I think this would be useful for even those who aren’t too familiar with fifteenth-century England.  Even though I’m well acquainted with the Black Death and the manueverings of the Wars of the Roses, it is integrated enough into the Pastons’ story so as not to become boring.

I have personally read quite a number of the Paston letters; they’re invaluable because the Pastons were intimately involved at court and reflect the surprising amount of social mobility available shortly after so many died in the Black Death, so they have both an insider’s perspective and a consciousness of where they had come from.  Castor reflects this well and does a very admirable job condensing the contents of the letters and quoting them where necessary to provide a steady, smooth narrative.  It does falter occasionally because the Pastons were embroiled in a seventeen year struggle to reap some benefit out of Sir John Fastolf’s will after John I became closely involved with him.  This can get boring, but the way the families’ characters show through the struggle kept me reading and it was certainly worth it in the end.

This would be a wonderful book to start with for anyone who is interested in familiarizing themselves with fifteenth century England.  For those who have enjoyed the recent spate of historical fiction centered around the Wars of the Roses, Blood and Roses would be an excellent choice to broaden your knowledge of the period while avoiding writing that feels too academic or stilted.  I highly recommend it.

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TSS: A winner and some armour

tssbadge1First things first: I have been remiss in announcing the winner of Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales.  The lucky winner is Claire, lucky commenter number 5 (but lucky entrant number 4), thanks to random.org.  Claire, I will be emailing you shortly, but if you happen to see this post before I do, please send me an email.  Thanks!

I just spent a somewhat interesting day in Leeds, a bigger city which is only a 20 minute train ride away.  My initial purpose was to copy a couple of articles from a journal to which that university subscribes, but since I was paying train fare, I also decided to stop by the Royal Armouries Museum.  I was disappointed that they weren’t holding a joust today since it’s “Wild West Week”, but otherwise I thought it was awesome.  Keith preferred the modern guns, but I was all about the medieval armour.  Who would have guessed?

Here’s a picture from the museum, full body 15th century armour:

img_1261They also had a clever display where you could stick your head into a helmet and try to see what was going on in a virtual battle.  It was nearly impossible; I can’t say I’d want to face someone with nearly all of my vision blocked!

As for reading, I’m about halfway into Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  For all that it isn’t as good as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I’m loving it.  These days I feel that I love fewer and fewer books, although I like almost all that I read; maybe I just read too many of them these days and I’m learning to separate the wheat from the chaff a little better.  With this book, however, I would have preferred knowing a bit less about the plot.  I’m at the middle of the book and the last event that the back cover promised has just happened, albeit with a surprise in between.  I try to give away as little as possible in my reviews and this is why; I dislike feeling impatient to get to a part I don’t expect.  I’m now excited to see what happens next and hope to finish the book either later today or early tomorrow.  Next up is Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler, a library book which is due back on Thursday, and then I’ve got to get to The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.

I’m quite pleased with my reading since last Sunday.  I completed:

  • Atlas of Unknowns by Tania James
  • The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
  • Undead and Unwelcome by MaryJanice Davidson
  • Starfinder by John Marco
  • The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar
  • Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
  • Warrior Daughter by Janet Paisley

As a result, my TBR mountain has dropped below 350.  I’m very pleased with myself, although I’m going to a library sale on Friday and will probably undo all the good work I’ve done.  Oh well.  It’s worth it for a bag of books for £3.50.

This week, I reviewed:

All in all, a very good week!  How is everyone else doing?  Anything exciting planned for the week?

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How to Have Fun During a Siege

sot-180During a siege, knights would host tournaments (in this case, probably jousts) to amuse themselves, and sometimes they’d even invite some of the besieged knights to join them.  Sieges were boring and jousts were amusing.  By the later middle ages, very few knights died in jousts, so the risks were small and the excitement factor was high.

Okay, who knew that?  I know I didn’t.  Moreover, why don’t historical novelists feature some of these tournaments?  Personally, I see loads of potential for tension between enemies if they’re out jousting with each other, or even between romantic leads if the hero’s life is suddenly in danger, and the author could kill off characters from something much more exciting than dysentery.

Sound good to anyone else?

If you know an author who does have tournaments in depth besides Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Kay Penman, leave me a comment!  I’d love to read fictionalized tournaments, I think it would help me grasp this a little better.  I have plenty of academic work on the subject already.

Also, am I the only person out there who would just love to try on actual medieval armor?  It could be a replica, but I want to know what it really felt like.  I’ll skip riding a warhorse though.  The one time I did ride an actual horse and not a pony, I was terrified and the horse acted up on purpose because it mysteriously knew, and I would not like to repeat that experience!

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